Obituary: Gp Capt Peter Townsend
Wednesday 21 June 1995
It was Peter Townsend's misfortune in becoming emotionally involved with Princess Margaret - in Coronation Year - that he was thereafter inextricably linked in the public mind with royal scandal. It was unfortunate for two reasons: far from behaving in a scandalous manner himself Townsend displayed, throughout the drama, impeccable decorum; and, besides, he deserved to be remembered as first and foremost a hero of the Second World War. Flying initially in a Hurricane (later in a Spitfire), he brought down the first German bomber to crash in England since the First World War, and eventually won the DSO and two DFCs.
In February 1944, greatly to his surprise, he was seconded on a three- month appointment as an equerry to George VI. Warned to take no notice if the King shouted at him, Townsend instead immediately warmed to what he recognised as the King's essential humanity and simplicity. The attraction was mutual, and Townsend remained in royal service for nine years. After only three years he was appointed Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, after six he was promoted Deputy Master of the Household, and on the death of the King in 1952 he moved to Clarence House for a brief spell as Comptroller to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
On his first day at Buckingham Palace, Townsend had met the 13-year-old Princess Margaret (he was 29), and it was anything but love at first sight. He had been married two and a half years, and became the father of two sons (one of whom was later a monk) before his marriage ended in divorce. During the Royal Family's tour of South Africa in 1947 it was noticed that Townsend could be quite sharp with Princess Margaret, whom he still evidently regarded as little more than a privileged schoolgirl.
A recognition of their mutual love dawned only slowly. When it became a fact which neither could deny, Townsend confided in the King's Private Secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, who had played a prominent part only 17 years before in the Abdication of Edward VIII. "Either you're mad or bad," Lascelles told him. He was neither, as it happened, but he and Princess Margaret do seem to have drifted into a pipe-dream, Princess Margaret ingenuously announcing their romance to the world by brushing some fluff from his uniform on Coronation Day.
Townsend was due to accompany the Princess and the Queen Mother to Rhodesia. Instead, he was abruptly dispatched, as air attache, to Brussels, and he always believed that Sir Winston Churchill, the then Prime Minister, was as keen as anyone to get him out of the country and harm's way. Indeed, the Queen and the Queen Mother appear almost to have stood on the sidelines, allowing the politicians, the Church and the press to advocate the rights and wrongs of the most hotly and publicly debated royal romance since that of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson.
Had the Queen Mother felt able to swallow her abhorrence of divorce and give her tacit approval, the marriage might have gone ahead, but with Princess Margaret at that time only third in line of succession to the throne, Townsend a divorcee and Queen Mary, to whom the Abdication had been anathema, still alive in the early months of 1953, the romance, undoubtedly a genuine one, was doomed from the start.
It was, however, two years before a final decision was made, by which time the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, had delivered himself, in typical style, of the insensitive opinion that the whole affair had been nothing more than "a stunt". Townsend's virtual exile lasted until 1955. Under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 Princess Margaret, on becoming 25, would have been free in August 1955 to marry without seeking the consent of the Queen, but she would still have required parliamentary approval. In the climate of the time there was no guarantee that such approval would be forthcoming, at any rate not without divisive debates in both Houses of Parliament.
With the shadow of the constitutional crisis of 1936 still hanging over the heads of the Establishment, a volte-face on the part of the Royal Family on the question of divorce was never on the agenda, and had either religious or civil marriage gone ahead it would have created all sorts of absurd anomalies; as a divorcee, Townsend, for example, would have been barred from the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. With a dignified announcement on 31 October 1955 that, "mindful of the Church's teaching that marriage is indissoluble", she had decided not to marry Group Captain Townsend, Princess Margaret brought two years of frantic speculation to an end, but not before Fleet Street had enjoyed a field day.
The immense display of popular sentiment and interest ("If they want to marry, why shouldn't they?" the Sunday Express demanded to know) can now be seen to have constituted a watershed in the nation's attitude towards divorce. Within a decade, with the advent of the so-called Permissive Society, people were wondering what all the fuss had been about, and the irony of the Margaret-Townsend affair is that so many future royal marriages, including Princess Margaret's, were to end in divorce.
Peter Townsend did eventually remarry, very happily, and became the father of a second family. He travelled extensively in Africa, India, South America, Japan, Canada and the United States, and eventually settled with his Belgian wife in France, where he wrote a number of highly readable books, including, in 1978, a balanced and charitable autobiography, Time and Chance. Into graceful old age he retained that natural diffidence, charm and modesty that had originally appealed so strongly to the Royal Family.
He developed, too, a perceptible sense of relief that things turned out the way they did. For a female commoner to marry into such a close-knit royal family as the British was to prove, in certain circumstances, something of a trial; for men like Mark Phillips and Princess Margaret's eventual husband Anthony Armstrong-Jones, it turned out to be an almost impossible undertaking, and Peter Townsend was far too nice a person to deserve the disaster of a second failed marriage.
There were many who believed until recently that had Princess Margaret been permitted to marry Townsend without renouncing her rights (something it is most unlikely he would have allowed her to do) she would have been a happier person, but that remains an historic imponderable. In 1955 the outcome was probably inevitable and right. Townsend certainly thought so.
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